Insight

Uncovering mafia behind stolen prepaid meters (1)

 

 

Many Nigerians are desperate to own prepaid meters to avoid estimated billings from Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs), believed to be exploitative. This desperation has led to increasing cases of prepaid meters being stolen, though it is said that meters are not transferable. In this investigation, JULIANA FRANCIS seeks to unravel those profiting from the crime

 

Adebola Street is located in the heart of Egbeda in Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos State. The street is the shortest along the Baba-Oba area of Car Wash axis.

 

The highest crimes that have occurred there are shops and apartments’ burgling and theft of vehicle batteries. The sleepy community came awake in March 2018, after some residents woke up to discover that power supply to their buildings had been cut off.

 

They were still wondering if Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC) officials came midnight to disconnect power, when someone suddenly noticed that prepaid meters to the affected buildings had vanished.

 

When they took count, five meters were gone. One of those affected is Mr. Oladiya Aruna of House 20, Adebola Street. Aruna runs an estate agency in the community. He said: “We came to the office and discovered that our meter was gone. We heard that other meters were also stolen.

 

The most shocking thing was that some of the meters were placed high on electric poles. There was no way an amateur could have climbed those poles and removed those meters. The theft was done by a professional. We also discovered that all the meters stolen were those placed outside. We reported to Ikeja Electricity (IKEDC).

 

The  officials came and collected information about our meters and then left. Since then, we have not heard from them. They said we should go and accept estimated billing.”

 

Another victim, Mr. Joshua Akimokwu, said that he had been to IKEDC’s office at Ponle bus stop four times for a new meter since the theft, but all his efforts had been futile. The landlady of House 13, Adebola Street, Mrs. Simisola Bankole, said that two meters were stolen from her compound. She said: “We went to IKEDC office because we wanted new meters, but they said it wasn’t their business, that we should have secured our meters.”

 

Mr. Isa Alimi, who has a shop at No. 1, Adebola Street, disclosed that two meters were stolen from his end of the street. He said: “When it happened, I quickly alerted IKEDC officials. They asked me if we didn’t have security in our community. I replied that we did. But were the guards supposed to watch over our meters? The officials said a replacement was being processed, but that for now; meters were unavailable.

 

They said I should go for estimated billing system, I said no. I decided to go to their Customer Care Centre. When I got there, they directed  me to one Mr. Bello; he’s in charge of prepaid meters. He told me that at Abule-Odu area, six prepaid meters were stolen. He said that those stealing them wouldn’t be able to make use of them. I didn’t believe that.

 

Why would they be stealing them if they couldn’t make use of them? Someone came here to borrow my Customer Interface Unit (CIU) to load her meter and it worked. I refused estimated billings. I’m now temporarily sharing with a neighbour, while I try to see how to get another prepaid meter. I want prepaid meter at any  cost.

 

With it, I know how to manage my money and the electricity I consume.” A resident of Lawani Street at Egbe-Idimu in Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos, Emeka, accused IKEDC workers of being responsible for his compound’s missing meter.

 

Emeka explained that the landlord had warned all tenants to keep mum on the issue, fearful that IKEDC officials would punish them by plunging the community into perennial darkness if they made too much noise about the stolen meter. He said: “We’re very sure that DISCO workers were responsible for the theft.

 

The meter was installed high up on the electric pole. The box housing the meter was locked and the key is with the officials, so who opened the box and stole the meter?” There is, however, a funny twist to the theft of the meter at Lawani Street.

 

Unlike those taken at Adebola Street, where the victims were immediately plunged into darkness after the thieves removed the meters, at Lawani Street, the thief removed the meter and reconnected the wire directly to the cable on the pole. Asked how consumers got to

 

 

know the meter was stolen, Emeka replied: “We have people in the area, who have knowledge of the prepaid meter boxes; they were the people that alerted us that our meter had been stolen.” Mr. Tajudeen Adebanjo, also a victim of stolen meter, residing at Ilasamaja area of Lagos State, recounted that he and other tenants woke up and found out that five prepaid meters had vanished. Four of the meters were later found.

 

He and other residents suspected a man in the community, popularly called Foley, who has experience with electricity. While Foley admitted removing Adebanjo’s meter to fix it, because Adebanjo had earlier complained that it was faulty, he denied removing other four. Residents didn’t buy his denial story and threatened to hand him over to the police. A day after Foley was threatened, three among the stolen meter surfaced. Adebanjo said: “Five meters went missing.

 

I went to Foley and he admitted taking mine, but denied taking others. I asked him why he didn’t tell me before removing mine. He reconnected me directly to the pole after removing my meter. I didn’t know my meter was gone until neighbours complained that they didn’t have light and that their meters had been stolen. I was the only person that had light, but I still decided to check my meter and then low and behold, mine was gone too.

 

We wanted to go to the police, but decided to go to our supplier, Eko Electricity Distribution Company (EKEDC) to lodge a complaint. “The meters surfaced after residents threatened to hand Foley over to police.

 

The smart cards of three of my neighbours’ matched the three recovered meters. It was clear the meters were part of those stolen.” But Adebanjo’s meter could not be repaired. One of the guards in the community later told residents that while on duty about 2a.m., he saw a man with a black polythene bag. He ordered the guy to stop, but the latter took off. The guard pursued and at a point, the runner dropped the bag and fled.

 

When the guard opened the bag, he saw three meters. The three meters were returned to the three tenants, leaving Adebanjo and another tenant without meters. EKEDC placed both of them on estimated billing.

 

Expressing his frustration over estimated billing system, Adebanjo said: “Our vending was usually between N2,000 and N2,500 every month, but on the first month of being placed on estimated billing, EKEDC brought N3,000, we complained; they promised to work on it.

 

The second month, they brought N5,000, we screamed. The third month, they came with N15,000. We couldn’t take it anymore.” The two men requested for prepaid meters but were told to exercise patience.

 

But the crazy bills kept coming and each time the money keeps increasing. This was even as no electrical equipment was added to their household. When they finally got their meters, it was through the intervention of an influential personality.

 

He added: “This took a year. Everything started last January and we got the meter this January. It was not easy and we spent a lot of money.” Our investigation showed that  not everyone is ready to wait almost a year or more, like Adebanjo and his neighbour, for prepaid meters, reason desperate customers patronise sellers of stolen meters, accelerating the boom of the market.

 

According to experts, a prepaid meter is a special type of energy meter that can be installed in homes and offices. Many people have often described prepaid meters as ‘pay as you go’ tariff or you pay as you use. The idea basically is that consumers use only what they had already paid for.

 

Although Nigerians earlier thought it would be expensive to maintain, today, many prefer it to estimated billings. Estimated billing gives DISCOs the power to determine the electricity bill to be paid by consumers in the event that such a consumer does not have a prepaid meter. One of the advantages of the prepaid meters cited by experts is that cases of meter theft would be reduced “this is because every prepayment meter has a unique identification number that can be tracked electronically.

 

Therefore, consumers can be sure of meters’ security.” This belief, with the ongoing challenges of prepaid meters being stolen, has been invalidated. Initially, DISCOs told Nigerians that the beauty of the prepaid meter was that it has a code, and that it couldn’t be used by anyone, except the buyer/owner, whose name is already registered on the meter.

 

Today, however, the same customised meters are now being stolen and resold at cutthroat prices. The prices almost triple those bought from official quarters. One question begs for answer: Who can break the code of a meter to ensure that another consumer takes possession and starts using it?

 

Determined to get further answers to the missing meters, our reporter, on July 17, 2018, paid a visit to the IKEDC branch office at Ponle bus stop. Pretending to be a resident of House 13, Adebola Street, she reported a case of stolen prepaid meter at her compound and other buildings.

 

She was given complaint number 81 and asked to go home and get serial numbers of the stolen meters. This was even as she explained that the complaints of the stolen meters had earlier been lodged.

 

On July 24, our reporter returned to the same office with  serial numbers of three of the stolen prepaid meters. The complaint number this time was 52. She was attended to by one of their customer care officers identified as Lekan. Lekan said: “We have launched a search for the stolen meters.

 

Right now, from what my computer is telling me, the meters are not being used yet.” Our reporter asked him why anyone would steal meters and wouldn’t use it, Lekan, said: “I don’t know. But your complaint had been noted and we shall alert you if we find the meters.

 

Meanwhile, what have you people being using since the incident?” The reporter explained that she and other neighbours were shar-ing a neighbour’s meter. She asked Lekan how to go about getting a new meter. Lekan gave her a cold look and snapped: “Madam, maybe you’re not hearing me well; we don’t have any prepaid meter on ground to give anybody! We’re out of prepaid meters.

 

Go to our office at Abule- Odu, they’ll tell you how to go about getting estimated billing.” When our reporter got to Abule- Odu, she was asked to look for Mr. Seyi, the marketing officer in charge of Adebola Street, to explain how to embark on estimated billing.

 

Thus, the journalist is backed into going for the much detested estimated billing, which DISCOs prefer, but consumers loathe. Every time a meter is stolen, consumers are forced to accept estimated billing, which is highly profitable to DISCOs.

 

A retired DISCO official, Mr. Ajele, disclosed that behind every stolen meter in any community are usually men in the communities, who have knowledge of electricity. According to him, those men are called, “DISCO 2 boys.”

 

He said: “Nigeria is full of crooked people and due to constant power failure nearly everyone now knows things about DISCOs and electricity. The situation is compounded by those we call ‘DISCO 2 boys’ who are often allowed to work with DISCO officials.” Asked the meaning of DISCO 2 boys, he explained: “They are illegal boys. They are not DISCO officials, but work with DISCOs. They are in every community. They are often called upon to do the work of DISCO officials by members of the community.

 

Many of them had heard about DISCOs and knew how DISCO officials operate. They know and have experiences. They know all the secrets of DISCO officials and electricity trade. Such guys, because they are unofficial, can do anything illegal. It doesn’t necessarily have to be  DISCO officials that are stealing and decoding the meters for new owners to use.

 

“Also, these DISCO 2 boys are loose with information. Members of the public, armed with vital information, can do anything, including stealing and decoding meters.” Several attempts by our reporter to locate markets for stolen prepaid meters were futile. Our reporter, posing as someone, who desperately wanted a prepaid meter at all cost, spoke with some DISCO 2 boys, but they all denied knowing such markets.

 

This hunt ran into months. Just when the reporter was about to give up, a DISCO 2 boy, who used to live at the Bariga area of Lagos and used to buy electrical parts at the Alaba International Market, promised to make some calls. Some weeks later, he called to say that he had found a market where they sell stolen meters. In the presence of the reporter, he called a dealer and discussed with him.

 

The dealer, who sounded happy, asked him to come, that he had fairly used meters. On November 24, the reporter, posing as the DISCO 2 boy’s friend, went to the Industrial Section of the Alaba International Market, FLine, to try to purchase the meter. The Industrial Section of the market is where anything electrical is sold.

 

Indeed, our reporter discovered that even stolen transformers are sold there. While there, our reporter noticed furtive movements and glances, from seedy looking characters armed with black nylons. The nylons are usually filled with cables or electrical wires.

 

Once these men walk past a shop, they only needed to glance into the shop and quickly look away, and then the owner will step out. Without words being exchanged, everything is done with the utmost economic of action.

 

The man holding the bag quickly opens it for the shop owner to check. A heated, undertone chat ensures. Thereafter, the shop owner goes into his shop, returns to collect the bag and hands money over to the shady character. Business concluded. When our reporter and the DISCO 2 boy got there, the dealer took one glance at our reporter and his countenance became hostile.

 

When the DISCO 2 boy asked for the meter, the dealer told him that he didn’t know what the heck the DISCO 2 boy was talking about. It soon generated into a heated argument, with the DISCO 2 boy insisting that the dealer asked him to come for a fairly used meter, while the dealer told him that he was out of his mind, that nobody sells fairly used prepaid meters.

 

According to him, it is only DISCOs that sell prepaid meters. The reporter and DISCO 2 boy left the shop. The DISCO 2 boy told our reporter the dealer must have changed his mind after seeing the reporter, a total stranger.

 

The reporter decided to hire a fixer and told him what to look out for. A month later of patrolling the market, the fixer called to say that he had found the market where stolen meters are sold.

 

The operation is very simple; the supplier gets the meters from different parts of the country, from agents, who are sometimes DISCO officials and brings them back to the market. He sells directly to dealers at N7,000. The dealers use chemical to clean it up, and then invite their DISCO official partners, to code it. The coding is N40,000. The coding is to enable the meter to function for the new owner and to also make it rechargeable.

 

The dealers, after cleaning and coding them, place the meters in cartons specially prepared for that purpose, waiting for buyers. They are then sold to desperate customers for between N80,000 and N95,000.

 

It is, however, a fast business and most time, people who want to buy directly from the supplier have to wait in line. Our fixer, working with our reporter, bought one of the stolen prepaid meters and paid for coding. It, however, turned out to be a meter from outside Lagos State.

 

According to the dealers, meters brought from outside Lagos, for a Lagos citizen, cannot be recharged. The fixer got another one and the DISCO official, who was supposed to code it for the dealer, didn’t come. He said that everyone was keeping a low profile because of a change in the contractor/supplier of prepaid meters for DISCOs in Lagos State.

 

The fixer was asked to exercise patience, that his meter would be brought, coded and mounted. But that is another story. The fixer said: “It’s a syndicate and they have DISCO officials as insiders working with them. The DISCO officials’ role is to code the meters for the dealers. The supplier said that he used to buy the meters as scrap and sell to the dealers at F-Line, Industrial Section of the Alaba International Market. The coding makes the meter to work at a new destination or district. “A meter stolen from either Ikeja Electricity or Eko Electricity can be coded to work at both jurisdictions.

 

“I was made to understand that before the change of prepaid meters in Lagos and the coming of a new contractor in Lagos State, meters from out of Lagos State could be coded to work in Lagos. The supplier said that he has agents in different states, who supply him with prepaid meters. Whenever they have such meters, they put a call across to him to come.

 

The dealers have a way of testing the meters to know if they would work before buying them from the supplier. The supplier also said that he has people that used to sell to him at Owode Market.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED

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